The food of Malaysia is one of the few SE Asian cuisines that I've never warmed up to. I think this had something to do with a Malaysian restaurant taking the place of my beloved Good 'n Plenty bar in Hoboken some years back. Damn them.
More realistically, my indifference was probably because the combination of Thai and Chinese and Indian never really did anything for me. Flavors and dishes seemed watered down, to my mind, with no real identity. That, of course, is some ignorant shit. Malaysian cuisine isn't hindered by its many influences. It is elevated by its many influences. I'm finally coming around.
This boring story starts about a year ago when we, on a whim, stopped at Penang in Lodi on the way back from a miserable dinner somewhere. Just for a drink. We figured it would be horrible and we'd get a story out of it. As it turned out, the bartender was an interesting character, the bar was well-stocked, the menu looked very appealing, and we had a grand ol' time. We knew we'd be back. But then we totally forgot about the place. Until this week.
We started with achat (pictured above), which is a pickled vegetable dish with a slightly sweet peanut gravy. Holy cow. This dish is right up my alley. Crisp, bright vegetables, crunchy pieces of peanut, spices, a bit of heat, acid. This dish hits all the marks. We cleaned the plate and I wanted more. Which is a good thing, because another dish we ordered included more.
The vegetable dumplings had a thin, tender skin (I suspect they are made in-house) and crunchy vegetables, served with a black vinegar and ginger dipping sauce. A very fine dumpling. They have a seafood version, which we did not try.
A dish called Nasi Lemak is apparently the national dish of Malaysia. This, according to the internet. It's a dish of coconut rice, and some other stuff. In this case, it was more of that achat, along with a hard boiled egg, chicken rendang, cucumber, and the highlight of the meal for me, chili anchovies.
Chili anchovies. Why not? Whole anchovies in a spicy sweet glaze. That stuff was out of this world, and like nothing I've eaten recently. If there's one thing that gets me going, it's something I've never tried before.
The chicken rendang consisted of dark meat (thankfully) in a wonderful rendang curry. We were going to order the chicken rendang as a dish on its own, but our server informed us that it would be coming on the Nasi Lemak plate. Nice of him.
Instead of the chicken rendang, the server recommended some sort of crap called Chili Chicken. Not nice of him (not his fault, I know). A completely and utterly insipid dish of chicken breast with no redeeming qualities. Skip it. Twice.
Penang has a decent but short selection of wines by the glass, including two from New Zealand and a Rosé from France. Good for them. Good for you.
They also have some fun tiki-type cocktails. The Zombie and the Mai Tai looked exactly the same, and tasted slightly different. Don't have more than one of either of these, what with all of that sweet stuff.
The service was friendly and efficient. The place is clean and bright and festive.
Penang is one of the few Malaysian places in the area, and for that reason alone, as if the chili anchovies aren't enough to motivate you, it's worth a visit.
Penang Malaysian and Thai Cuisine : 334 N. Main Street : Lodi, NJ : 973-779-1128 (and in East Hanover as well)